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Try This: Why The Misspelings?
Let’s go long, here. My junior year in high school my grandfather asked what I planned to do after graduation. I didn’t know. He told me, “Don’t waste time. Do what you dream of doing.”
It’s a moment that sticks with me. Thirty years later the director Guillermo Arriaga in Paris told me about being a boxer on the Mexican Olympic team, and almost dying from pericarditis. In recovery he looked down at his hands and thought, “Someday these will be the hands of a dead man,” and he realized he had to grab for the brass ring and at least try to become a film director.
In short, your life is just a blip. So at age sixteen or seventeen I began writing letters to the head of the Personnel department at the Oregonian newspaper in Portland some 300 miles west of my home town. I wanted to be a “copy kid.” Formerly known as “copy boys,” these were young people who ran typed sheets of copy from reporters’ desks to the editors and the Composing Room. For almost two years I wrote to this man, Frank LeSage, and when I graduated he invited me to interview for a job.1
My first interview was in the newspaper’s morgue -- the clippings library where each paper was cut to pieces and the individual articles had to be filed under different categories. The starting pay was almost three times the minimum wage, but the manager told me she only hired women. People still smoked at their desks, it was a different time. My second interview was in the advertising services department. I was never asked to interview as a copy kid; instead, I was hired as a messenger to run advertising proofs to accounts around the city.2
Each day we’d run at least two sprints around the city. Between those routes we ran mail between departments within the building. Between those sprints we had to tear hundreds of copies of each edition of the paper, page-by-page into “tear sheets” which also had to be delivered to the advertisers.3
Besides me the other ad runners were Wog and Tom – who formed a cover band called Rock Residue – there were Joanie, Shari, the born-again Christian guy, David from South Africa, and the stoner guy who was fired for dealing drugs along his newspaper routes, and Scott and Jaime.45
One afternoon we were tearing the one-star edition into a million tear sheets when the phones all rang at once. Suit-wearing executives stormed into the department. A typographical error had been discovered in a full-page ad for the Meier & Frank department store, the paper’s largest account. Those papers had already been delivered.6
Our boss’s boss’s boss’s boss demanded to see the original printed proof for the ad, and there it was. A half-off sale on men’s knit shirts. Little typos happened on occasion. Usually a letter would flake off an old waxed paste-up. The store Director Furniture always used the motto: “From Your Friends at Director’s!” And the “r” was always dropping off, making the word “fiends.”7
Like a strange curse, the very large “r” had also dropped off the Meier & Frank ad. Yeah, making it a full-page ad for men’s knit “shits.” Half price.8
We pulled the proof and found the store had reviewed and approved the “shits” version.9
We were elated. No one was fired. It felt somehow joyous to see a chink in the always-proofed, double-checked world where everything seemed perfect except us. Especially us. I feel this same elation whenever I see a published typo.
One summer, for weeks I noticed the same Lost Cat poster on telephone poles, but each poster had a different typo. They’d all been done with word-processing software, but somehow a new word was screwed up on each. This made me study them even closer, looking for a pattern. Deliberate or not, the creator had hooked me into really paying attention to something I’d normally ignore. The inconsistent flaw.
I feel this same euphoria when I surf Cake Wrecks, and I love to give the Cake Wrecks books as gifts. Food + Typos = Happiness.
Likewise, the strangely translated menus in Asian restaurants delight me. Their misphrasings always make me read with fresh eyes. That, and once I had drinks at the Soho Hotel in London with the Swedish film director Ulf Johansson.10 He’d just gotten the contract to create fifty-two television commercials for eBay, and his plan was to make them all identical except for one small detail that would differ from commercial to commercial. He reasoned that this variation would hook viewers, it would generate online debate. People would argue over the exact minutia of what they’d seen, and they’d subsequently pay closer attention in order to be proved right or wrong.
Again, this goes back to gaining energy by creating something debatable. Was the typo on the Cat Wanted poster deliberate, like Ulf’s eBay commercials? Or just a glitch in auto-correcting? Or, a Freudian typo?11
More recently I had breakfast with friends as they discussed how Elizabeth Holmes had allegedly begun to speak in a deeper voice in order to be taken seriously. A female friend said how she herself resented having to adopt “business voice” in order to be heard as a professional. A gay friend said how he learned early on not to use “gay voice” in the workplace. Business voice, gay voice, Elizabeth Holmes deepening her voice, perfect spelling and grammar, it all seems part and parcel of the same effort. A drive to standardize self-expression and subjugate personality to appear part of the unifying authoritative whole.12 13
And the drive to standardize has moved beyond spelling and grammar. Microsoft Outlook drives me nuts as it uses “predictive wording” to dictate every email I try to write. And it offers auto-responses that sound asinine – “Yes I’d love to attend!” My gut tells me that soon AI will be answering all my correspondence behind my back. And with auto-formatting, and spell check, and grammar check… well, they all seem to be doing to fiction what photography did to realistic painting. Once realism and clarity are automated, fiction will have to become more intuitive and abstract, no?
My point is that standardized everything robs your work of some authenticity. Perhaps that’s one reason that Gordon Lish’s concept of “burnt tongue” adds a freshness and realness to fiction.14
Consider the novel A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. Consider Orwell’s 1984 and Welsh’s Trainspotting and how reinventing the language for the story is a large part of making the reader pay closer attention. It says, No skimming allowed. And consider how typos could be part of that new system of storytelling, tailored specifically for one narrator’s point of view.
In other words do something wrogn. But consistently wrogn. I’m not telling you to exhaust and annoy the reader, but experiment. Nothing will replace a good plot and the other elements of good writing – particularizing your objects, morphing your objects, giving on-the-body description – but you can communicate a deeper reality and sincerity by allowing a few typos or whatnot to appear to slip through.
By doing so, you allow your reader to feel superior. And done right, this will hook the reader’s emotion and make him or her more protective and sympathetic toward your characters.15 Whatever the case, it’s worth a try.
Maybe this way your reader will actually WANT to find your cat.
Good news this week about Study Hall. If you want to hear it…
Or, get a jump on the holidays by…
Don’t give teh writer in your life anothr pear of socks.
In 1980 LeSage could still smoke his Cherry Blend pipe tobacco in his office on the second floor of the Oregonian Building on SW Broadway in Portland, Oregon. He arranged all the hiring for both the daily Oregonian and the daily Oregon Journal. Years later, he was replaced by his assistant, Mary. More recently Mary was replaced by Tom Whitehouse who’d been hired to work alongside the 18-year-old me. Back in 1980 Tom had just left military service and ate a single can of water-packed tuna fish for lunch every day, a practice that impressed the teenage me for its frugality and unpleasantness. Not long before the newspaper moved to smaller quarters I visited Tom in the old Broadway building. It was a Thursday afternoon, a time when the classified advertising department would normally be a hectic, deafening roar of people talking on phones and typing. “Classified” occupied almost an entire city block, most of the building’s second floor. Thursday afternoon was the deadline for ads that would run in the fat Sunday editions. But on that last visit the second floor was almost silent. Tom walked me to Classified, where only a couple clerks sat among a sea of empty desks. No phones rang. He told me, “Craig’s List has killed us.” Almost the entire profit margin had come from those little ads in the back of the newspaper, and now the internet had scuttled the Oregonian’s main source of income.
On their first day, every ad runner had to tag along with Burt. He was a short, dapper middle-aged man wearing horn-rimmed glasses. He might’ve been Dustin Hoffman’s model for the title character in Rain Man. His emotional affect was completely flat, and he mumbled his thoughts constantly. Everyone in downtown Portland greeted Burt on sight, he’d been delivering ad proofs since forever. A true human landmark. Despite his dapper appearance, up close he smelled of strong sweat, mainly because he insisted on walking at a pace that would bring him to each intersection during a WALK signal. Therefore, he never really stopped. This meant trotting along with him at around twenty-two miles per hour, rain or sun, all day. No one warned us we’d be sprinting around that first day, and most new-hires arrived wearing leather church shoes, or worse – high heels. Young women found themselves crippled after that first day of ceaseless tagging along behind Burt.
Back then, the old ad agencies occupied the top floors of otherwise-empty cast-iron palaces leftover from the 19th century. I learned to jockey a freight elevator because the regular elevators would always be broken. These agencies would be one-man offices where an ancient adman would be creating waxed paste-ups for dying businesses such as Henry Thiele’s and the River Queen. Still a teenager, I rode the elevator down once with one of these advertising dinosaurs. He wore a heavy woolen suit and seemed unaware as urine dribbled out the cuffed hem of one pant leg and pooled around us on the elevator floor. I looked without staring at this war horse from a bygone era and thought: This is what it’s like to grow old.
After I left, the department was gutted due to so many ad runners selling drugs along their routes. A little story the newspaper never reported. No, what happened at the Oregonian stayed inside its tight little family. Wog’s mother, for example, wrote the paper’s consumer advice column. Jaime’s father was the publisher, Fred Stickel. Scott’s uncle was a retail advertising senior account rep. It was near impossible to get a job there in 1980 unless you had family already working for the paper.
A small-town Portland story: In 1980 Wog, who’s real name was Paul, was dating a beautiful blonde model named Beth. The most-glam event of my youth was hearing about how Beth had been hired to deliver champagne to the private jet of an 80s band at Portland International Airport. Wog had bragged about it for a week – the band had tipped her a hundred bucks! Some fifteen years later I was meeting friends at a tiki bar called The Alibi. I’d written a short story called Fight Club and my friends were giving me feedback on the first draft. A server arrived at our table to take drink orders, and the server was Beth. I was charmed to meet her again after all those years, and that’s how small our town used to seem.
The typo was set in two-inch type, the largest size, what people called “second coming type” because a typeface that large could only be used if Christ came back to the earth. It was so bold that apparently no one had proofed it very closely.
The most famous typo of my childhood had arrived in fifteen million homes. It was the fall/winter Sears catalog for 1975. In the men’s underwear section one model wore boxer shorts and the head of his penis appeared to be dangling out one leg. Skeptics called this type of typo a “photographic artifact,” but it was so famous at the time that it inspired a hit song. It’s the country-western song “The Man on Page 602.”
Everyone lived in terror of LeeAnne, who ran the print advertising department at Meier & Frank. Her department ate up most of that store’s block-square eleventh floor and included seamless-paper photography studios for shooting models and dishware to fill endless full-page retail display ads.
The terrifying LeeAnne herself had signed off on the ad.
Damn, I’m name dropping a lot of directors in this post!
In 2010, some seven thousand copies of The Pasta Bible had to be pulped due to a typographical error. A recipe advised cooks to season a dish “with freshly ground black people.”
Watch the film A Chorus Line and see how characters initially strive to appear unified, then fragment to reveal personal identities, then fall back into inauthentic group identity. That’s the heartbreak, to recognize our humanity and still discard it.
Another observation, anthropologists say that precision theatrical dancing originated from hunting bands that had to appear as a single enormous entity in order to frighten large herd animals and stampede them over cliffs – something to think about when you see the synchronized dance floor number from Saturday Night Fever, or dance the Electric Slide or the Macarena at the next wedding reception. Or when you ever see The Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. All those precision fan kicks evolved from driving buffaloes to their death.
When misphrasing or making deliberate mistakes, Tom always said to make the seeming error at least three times so the reader would recognize that it was a tic of the story’s voice, and the editor wouldn’t ding you for doing it.